Thursday, 26 October 2017

Chuck Ramirez

I'm in HEB, my local supermarket. My shopping basket is, as usual full of cat food.

'Oh. My. God.'

I look up. There is a vaguely Hispanic looking dude stood in front of me with his mouth hanging open. A couple of seconds have passed before he realises that he should probably say something.

'You are the very image of a friend of mine.' His mannerisms seem a little camp, which I realise may not directly correlate to his sexuality, but this really sounds like a chat-up line.

'Okay.' I'm not sure what else to say. If he thinks I'm hot, it really doesn't bother me.

'A friend but - well, he died a while ago. You look just like him. Have you ever heard of an artist called Chuck Ramirez?'

I haven't. I shake my head. 'Sorry, no.'

'It's the eyes…' He seems to be moving his hands as though framing a film he's planning to make. 'You could be his brother.'


I can't help but think of Richard Ramirez, the serial killer, which means at least I won't have any trouble remembering the name of my alleged doppelgänger.

'He was a photographer,' - my admirer suddenly remembers something and steps back a little. 'I need to take a photograph of you. Is it okay if I take a photograph?'


'They ain't gonna believe…' he fumbles in different pockets. 'I don't have my phone with me.'

'Well, I'm in here every day about the same time, usually buying cat food.'

'I'll look for you again.'


I'm smiling as I head for the checkout because it's funny.

'It sounds a lot like he had the hots for you,' Bess suggests when I tell her about the encounter that evening. She hasn't heard of Chuck Ramirez either, but she looks him up on her phone, and there actually is a resemblance, stronger in some photographs than others, and particularly around the eyes. A website called Ruiz-Healy Art has this to say:

Chuck Ramirez (1962-2010), one of San Antonio's most beloved artists, was a major force in the San Antonio art community before his untimely death in a 2010 cycling accident. A 2002 Artpace resident, Ramirez' work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. As an artist and graphic designer, Ramirez employed the visual and conceptual techniques found in contemporary advertising and package design, isolating and re-contextualizing familiar objects to explore cultural identity, mortality, and consumerism through his photographs and installations.

The next evening we're driving back from Jim's diner, or possibly some other diner, and something catches my eye as we cross North New Braunfels onto the Austin Highway.

'Holy shit!'

'What?' Bess squeaks in panic, almost losing control of the wheel for just a fraction of a second.

'Look!' I point.

We are driving past the McNay Art Museum. What's on at the McNay is advertised on four sides of an immense wooden cube permanently situated on the grass triangle adjacent to the museum. The side facing us is taken up with the fourteen foot high image of a woman's handbag, top open to expose key chains, pills, a cellphone and so on. Above the handbag is the name Chuck Ramirez. The poster promotes an exhibition of his work. It's just started and will run for the next couple of months.

I've lived in San Antonio since 2011.

I'd never heard of Chuck Ramirez, my double, before yesterday.

Today I see his name in letters several feet tall.

It feels a little like the universe is fucking with me, as though it's only just thought of this guy.

Next evening we go to have a look at the exhibition, which is called All This and Heaven Too. It mostly comprises large photographs of small everyday objects, handbags, a vase of flowers, trash, Mexican candies and so on. It reminds me a little of the work of Andy Warhol, which is unfortunate because I couldn't care less about the work of Andy Warhol, generally speaking. I find it bland, and that it seems in many cases to be intentionally bland is not enough to excite my interest.

Each to their own.

The gallery is packed, I guess because it's only the second or third night. I anticipate people dropping their drinks and standing, open-mouthed to point at me, maybe even a few screams.

Oh my God! It's him! There he is!

It doesn't happen. Maybe the resemblance is dependent on lighting, or whether or not the eye of the beholder finds me sexually attractive; leaving just the art as the sole source of potential pleasure, and it simply isn't the kind of art I'm ever likely to appreciate.

I think of people I knew at art college, still plugging away, these days as facebook friends who post slightly blurry photographs of an old tin mug on a piece of wood, or rusted cooking utensils. The photographs appear frayed at the edges as though printed on handmade paper, and always there's the associated information about what type of camera or lens were used. I've never worked out why they share such images with the rest of us, or what I'm supposed to get from them.

The exhibition isn't that big, and after twenty minutes it feels like we've tried, so we go to the gift shop. I look at the art books. Most of them seem to be geared towards fostering an appreciation of art amongst people who don't actually like art but might not mind getting some gifty book for a birthday or Christmas present: Matisse, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Dalí, all of those guys…

Bess buys chocolates for her grandmother, and we head out for a quick look around the other galleries, the permanent collection, the place where they hang paintings by Corot, Dufy, Renoir, Courbet, Marsden Hartley and others; and I remember how much I like these paintings, like a good beer after a bland yet efficient hamburger which I hadn't really wanted in the first place.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

My Long Lost Uncle Richard

Derek, Peter, Richard and myself, June 2012.

Back in 2007, just as Arthur Burton, father to my father, shuffled off into the great beyond, another Burton emerged from the woodwork, a Burton named Richard Straley. My cousin Mark had been engaged in genealogical research, climbing out onto long-forgotten branches of our family tree to see if there was anything of interest dangling beneath. In the meantime, Richard Straley had undertaken familial detective work of his own, and the two of them met in the middle.

Going back to the beginning, my father's parents - my grandparents - were Arthur Burton and Marjorie Brush. Arthur had one brother, Charlie, although the two of them didn't get on very well. Hitler kicked off, and Arthur went overseas to fight, but ended up captured, taken prisoner, and was as such forced to march across Poland towards the end of war as part of a notorious undertaking which it is believed claimed the lives of thousands. Marjorie meanwhile had been working as a nurse somewhere in London, and I understand that Charlie continued to labour on the farm. Neither of them had any idea as to whether Arthur was dead or alive, and Marjorie had a child by Charlie.

When it transpired that Arthur was still very much alive and on his way home, the child was given up for adoption and seemingly never mentioned again. My understanding is that Arthur never knew, and neither Marjorie nor Charlie were in any hurry to spill the beans, although personally I have to wonder if this might not have been the true root of what animosity everybody recalls as having existed between the brothers. I remember that Charlie passed on back in the seventies, and that we went to look around his house, which seemed huge and fascinating to me. I wondered why we had never, to the best of my knowledge, visited him, but if there were an answer I probably wouldn't have understood it.

Marjorie was killed in a car accident around what I recall as having been the same time, or at least the same decade.

Then in 2007, my dad discovered this previously unknown older brother, or half-brother, or possibly two-thirds-brother given that his uncle had been the boy's father, more or less keeping it all within the same gene pool. My dad gave me an email address and I wrote to the man, attaching some photographs I figured he might want to see. He replied in an email dated to Friday the 17th of August, 2007.

Wonderful to hear from you. I had no idea you existed, so it's an additional pleasure and the fact you are a painter completes my pleasure. I am going to have to reply at great and boring length tomorrow or the day after as we have to collect my son Ben from camp at Bewdley tomorrow at 9.00AM - means an early start.

Thank you so much for the photos, both of your work and the family. So sorry about your grandfather but I hope to be able to make the scattering of his ashes. Pat will let me know when and I believe your dad is organising it. Especially nice to see Elizabeth as that is the only photo I have of her.

Thanks so much for writing. I really do appreciate it.

This was followed up on the Sunday.

I'll try to get this email off in one go but there is a lot to say and tell and my son will need the PC when he decides to get out of bed.

It really was exciting to hear from you. So sorry that Arthur died but I hear from Pat that the funeral went well and Peter has his ashes. I believe they are to be scattered on Mum's grave and I hope to be there for that. Pat said she would let me know when, but apparently Peter is organising. I'll wait to hear when and where.

What amazing photos. They came out perfectly. Mum's home on the farm looks very warm and cosy. I would imagine you enjoyed going there. Such a shame I never knew them.

I had been trying to find my natural family since about 1984 when I finally got hold of the adoption papers, and I could never understand why my father was Charles Burton but Mum married Arthur Burton. I looked and looked in all sorts of records but there were so many Burtons it was impossible, but I did put the details on Friends Reunited where eventually Mark Jeffries found them and hey presto - here we are a family again. Getting used to meeting so many new people has been quite an experience, especially as there is such a strong family resemblance, especially with Frank whom I believe is coming to the UK next year. If you have any other photos you could share with me I would be very grateful. Trying to build a family from nothing is a challenge!

I lived most of my life in Southampton, going to Art College there, 1967-1970. Then there was the Open University arts degree, 1971-1974 whilst working as a postman. Then a year out driving a tractor on a farm at Eastleigh just outside Southampton, then teacher training in London, 1975-1976, finally getting a teaching job at Blackpool College, 1976-1980. I left there to come down to Gloucestershire and set up a Theatre in Education group, going around secondary schools putting on set plays for GCSE. That folded in 1981 and I went to Gloucester Art College where I stayed until I retired in 2001.

I met my lovely wife Eunice at Gloucester in 1982. We married then and now have two sons, Ben, 17 and Pete, 14. My life is very simple now. I try to keep painting, design websites, cook and shop. Eunice works at the University in Student Support Services.

Your life sounds really interesting. I've never been to Mexico but our two sons are adopted from Brazil and we spent some time there in the mid-eighties and early nineties. I tell a lie - in 1980, to get over a failed relationship, I took myself to the USA and got a Greyhound ticket for thirty days, I went all over the US and into Mexico but did not stay. Mexico City was so polluted I just got the next bus out. Shame really - I should have stayed. I wanted to look at Diego Rivera's murals.

More later, but Ben has surfaced and needs to complete some college work on the PC.

We briefly spoke on the phone, and it was both weird and exciting to find myself in conversation with a Burton who spoke with what was, roughly speaking, a London accent, one who had been both a postman and a painter, much like myself. We finally met in June, 2012. I was married and living in Texas, but I'd returned to England for a couple of weeks to see friends, relatives, and to catch up. My dad drove across to the village, Cranham in Gloucestershire, and we met in a pub called the Black Horse. My uncle Derek turned up unannounced, based entirely upon my dad having mentioned that he intended to visit, and so we had a table full of Burtons. This was unusual for me, or at least it was unusual that I should be present given the geography and everything. The Burtons have a very distinctive look characterised by a certain shape of face and the big lips which earned my dad the nickname Smiler at school; and there were four of us, and two of those were identical twins; and one of them was someone whose existence had only recently been revealed to us - that same face but with a London accent coming out of it, roughly speaking. It was weird, but nice.

Richard was erudite and funny, and it was one of those occasions where you realise how much you have in common with others, forgetting entirely about the differences. We all got pleasantly drunk and then went our separate ways.

I kept in touch with Richard through facebook, on and off, and oddly it was his invitation which had first drawn me to the social media site. One year, somebody bought me a collection of Accident Man comic strips written by Pat Mills and drawn by Duke Mighten, who, in the dedication at the front of the book, thanks my college lecturer Richard Straley for putting me on the right track and keeping me focused; so that merited a raised eyebrow or two. I had a vaguely famous uncle, and one who would address me as dear boy from time to time.

Unfortunately, Richard's health had been an issue from the moment I first knew of him. He was a man of sedentary habits who seemed to enjoy pies and beer significantly more than he enjoyed exercise. He used a mobility scooter to get around, but even this was difficult given his living in an isolated village in which everything seemed to be uphill, and in a small house built before wheelchair access even existed as a term. Last December he suffered a fall and was rushed to hospital in a coma. He recovered, but never enough to come home, and then I found out that he passed away on Sunday the 3rd of September. I suppose, it wasn't entirely unexpected given the state of his health over the previous year, but it was nevertheless sad, and a waste, and a loss, as deaths tend to be.

I knew him for just ten years, which was better than not at all.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Conversation in a Fast Food Establishment

I'm well aware of all of the many arguments against, both dietary and moral, but nevertheless every once in a while I get a craving for something from McDonald's, and it's usually breakfast. Living in Texas, I'm spoiled for burger joints, and most of them serve the real thing, but you don't always necessarily want the real thing. Sometimes you want a McDonald's.

The guy is young and white with a beard of the kind which is really just hair growing on his face, hair with which he might do something but he hasn't yet decided what.

'I'll have a sausage and egg McMuffin.'


I don't recall seeing his name tag so let's call him Steve for the sake of argument. 'Actually I'll have the meal. That's with coffee and a hash brown, right?'

'Sure - medium coffee,' and Steve says something else I don't quite catch. I guess he's asking me whether I require milk.

'White,' I say, and feel immediately weird about it, like we're a couple of Klansmen exchanging secret signals. At the same time the other half of my brain unscrambles the original question, whether I want creamer and sugar. I take another fraction of a second arguing with myself over creamer, and how actually I'd like milk because nobody in the history of the world has ever genuinely wanted creamer, but I'm in McDonald's so it's not really worth arguing. You press the button, stuff comes out, and that's how it works.

'Two sugars,' I say.


'Two of those as well.' I notice how this transaction is going smoothly, or at least more so than what usually happens when I enter a fast food joint. I'm not certain it's that my accent sounds strange so much as that it's simply unfamiliar, so for some people it's as though Prince Charles just came in the door and they freak out accordingly. I had to ask for ketchup four fucking times at Barbecue Station, and yes, use of fucking as a quantifier is entirely justified in this instance. Each time I asked, I pronounced the word ketchup exactly as it is pronounced by everyone else in the universe.

Have you got any ketchup?

Say what?


What was that again?


You want some milk?


At one point he held up a squeezy bottle of mustard and pointed like that might be what I was referring to with my free-form Dadaist parole in libertà. Anyway, right now it's going well for me in McDonald's, so I get adventurous.

'Can I have an extra hash brown with that?' Somehow this is traditionally the stage at which I come unstuck. I'm a pig and that's why I want twice the traditional quota which comes with the order, and usually this confuses people at least as much as when I ask for ketchup. 'So that's two hash browns.'

Steve presses buttons on the till, which seems promising. 'I guess you're from across the pond.'


'So what brings you here?'

'I live here. I mean, I got married and I live here. My wife is from San Antonio.'

He chuckles. 'How do you like the heat?'

'Well, you know, it's okay.'

'I'm from Seattle and I can't stand it. I'm used to rain.'

I tend to enjoy conversations with strangers, but sometimes the novelty can get in the way. I'm enjoying this one because it seems like no big deal. 'I guess England and Seattle have about the same climate,' I suggest.

He says something about London, something relating to weather, I guess.

'I was a mailman for twenty years so I don't mind it,' - I mean that I don't mind the heat here in Texas, but it probably doesn't matter whether I'm making sense. 'You know, starting every morning at six and it's freezing cold and like there's a whole six months where the sky is just grey all of the time, so I really don't mind the heat at all.'

I assume that made some kind of sense, and I've noticed that I used the term mailman in preference to postman. I consider the city of Seattle for a second, the home of Tad, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Peter Bagge's Hate! comic. 'How come you ended up here?'

'My mom was in the military, Steve explains, 'so I came down here with her, but she moved to California.'

'You didn't want to move with her?'

'I'm twenty-five and I couldn't. It wouldn't have worked out. She bought me a house here so,' and he explains something I don't quite catch about paying rent. Whatever it is, it sounds positive.


There doesn't seem to be anything more to say, so I pick a table by the window with a view of the Austin Highway. My order is numbered 103 on the receipt which Steve gave me. It feels strange to be sat at a table without food, so I return to the counter and wait.

Steve is now mopping the floor. 'You know, it's okay here but I could have lived without Harvey.'

Clearly he's referring to the hurricane. 'Yeah, but I guess we were lucky.'

He talks about Houston and the flooding.

'I know,' I say. 'My wife always tells me we're too far inland for any serious damage, and she's lived here her whole life. I mean I know there were tornadoes in the city last year. I try not to worry about it too much.' This was supposed to sound reassuring, but I somehow managed to get onto the occurrence of tornadoes in a city which traditionally doesn't suffer tornadoes.

Steve shakes his head. 'I tell you one thing, I thought Bush handled Katrina bad, but compared to this guy, Trump - I mean, Jesus - what a mess.'

'I hear you.'

I don't know if the sense of relief was tangible in my voice.

As a white man, I probably don't have a lot to worry about in the great scheme of things, at least nothing specific to my lack of pigmentation; but one minor hazard of being a white guy is when other white people assume that I share their shitheaded right-wing or even racist views. It's not a major problem, but it's enough of one for it to feel amazing when it doesn't happen.

I definitely approve of Steve.

'Wait until Hurricane Irma wipes out New York,' he mutters darkly, still mopping. 'We'll see how he likes that.'

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Science-Fiction for Righties

Perky Girl Assistant finished cleaning the TARDIS dunny and returned the quantum bog brush to its receptacle. The work station set into the nearby roundel bleeped to acknowledge the end of her shift - eight hours, by Gallifreyan standard. Now all that was left to do were her tax returns for the day's labour, but she was still removing her overall as that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor burst in through the door.

'There you are,' he said breathlessly. 'We're needed. I've just received a distress call from Prime Minister Farage! Early twenty-first century, and I believe during White History Month, unless I'm very much mistaken.'

'But my tax returns…' she floundered as the sentence failed to complete itself. 'It's just that I don't want—'

'No time for that,' barked the Doctor eccentrically. 'The game is afoot! There is adventure to be had.'

'What? Seriously?'

'No - I'm joking. You must of course fill in your tax return first. It's only fair. I'm not made of money.' He snapped his fingers in a jovial yet firm manner. 'Step to it, Perky Girl Assistant!'

She quickly went to her quarters and changed into a perkier outfit so as to save time. She switched on the neutrino computer and set to work. She had laboured eight hours at seventy Gallifreyan dollars an hour, making 560GD from which she owed the Doctor 30% in tax, which would be 168GD, leaving her with 392GD. Of this sum she presently owed 290GD in room rental, use of facilities, and time-space tax; so that left her with just over one-hundred. It seemed a little unfair, and yet the figures added up. I'm not running a charity here, the Doctor had told her on a number of occasions, and it was equally true that she enjoyed the full benefit of all that the TARDIS had to offer, and he had overheads of his own to consider. Artron crystals didn't come cheap, and without them that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor would just be some weird cunt stood in an old police box.


Later that evening they were sat at the table of the main dining room at 10, Downing Street. There was the Doctor and his assistant, both tucking into their veal fritters, with the Prime Minister and his wife, Gisele Bündchen, facing them. A respectful butler refilled their glasses with wine as the Doctor regaled his host with an account of their most recent adventures.

'You see, the Cyberpersons were using the portal—'

'I'm sorry?' Farage grinned his famous grin. 'Who?'

'Cyberpersons. I know,' chortled that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor. 'Wretched, isn't it?'

They all rolled their eyes.

'You see they were using the portal to reconfigure the ancestral gene pool, so that by the time we arrived, it was standing room only.'

'O que era apenas espaço parado?' Gisele asked in Portuguese.

'This would be the disabled lesbian Muslim theatre workshop?' wondered the Prime Minister darkly.

'I'm afraid so,' confirmed the Doctor answeringly.

'All funded by innocent taxpayers, I don't doubt.'

'Exactly!' The Doctor slammed the palm of his hand upon the burnished oak of the table. 'That's why the planet's economy had been decimated.'

'You couldn't make it up,' said Perky Girl Assistant helpfully, but no-one took any notice, as usual.

She still missed that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the old Doctor. She just couldn't get used to this new, burly figure, supposedly his thirtieth incarnation, or his thirty-first if you included the one he never liked to talk about, the one with a fanny. She had asked him, of course, but he usually ran off into the cloister room, and she could never tell whether he was blushing or angry. All a terrible misunderstanding, he would mutter before descending into a rambling refutation of his cursed Gallifreyan biology, the evils of Socialism, the triumph of a free market economy, and how he had never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever been confused - not even for one second…